What Obama Missed On His Alaska Tour

President Barack Obama stops at a lookout on September 1 while hiking past the Exit Glacier, part of the Harding Icefield in Seward, Alaska.
President Barack Obama stops at a lookout on September 1 while hiking past the Exit Glacier, part of the Harding Icefield in Seward, Alaska.Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama has covered a lot of ground during his visit to Alaska this week, which ended today in the town of Kotzebue, where he'll deliver a closing speech at the high school and make history as the first sitting U.S. President to visit a town north of the Arctic Circle. The logistical limitations of Obama's visit have kept him constrained to just a few stops — after all, POTUS rolls with a rather substantial entourage, and getting them anywhere is no small feat. So while he's put together an admirable itinerary — which included a nice hike past Exit Glacier in Seward — he's still just scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer. Here are a few places he needs to go, next time.

The skies were clear enough when the President arrived in Anchorage on Monday for a glimpse of Denali on the horizon to the north. And if you're going to rename a mountain, you should probably visit it. The 200-mile flight from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a good flight-seeing tour, and he could probably touch down on one of the five glaciers surrounding the peak. He could sign up for a Denali flightseeing tour out of Anchorage, and a post-Presidency Obama might prefer to do what thousands of tourists do every summer: ride the Denali Star train on the incredibly scenic route from Anchorage to the park.

From Denali National Park, the train continues on to Fairbanks, and we’d encourage the President to take this stop. His current trip has kept entirely to the coast, and a trip to the largest city in the interior would be worth his time. While there, he could give a guest lecture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the flagship of the state’s university system, then use Fairbanks as a jumping off point for adventures nearby. He could pan for gold, visit a sled dog kennel, or soak in the hot springs in a geothermal-powered resort but perhaps a drive up the Dalton Highway would be the most educational. The highway, built as a supply road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, it is known as one of North America’s most desolate roads, running parallel to the pipeline as it heads 414 miles north across a whole lot of nothing before arriving at Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. He won’t want to drive the whole thing, but even a short stretch would be a useful education in the reality of pipelines, something he’s had cause to think about lately.

From Fairbanks, he should continue north, all the way up to Barrow, America's northernmost city and the commercial hub for the North Slope oil fields. There, he can tour Point Barrow, America's northernmost point, and perhaps get a flying tour over ANWR, to the east, which he proposed further protections for earlier this year. West of Barrow lies the Chuckchi Sea, where the President just approved further exploratory drilling by Shell a couple weeks ago. He won't be able to see much from shore, but staring out over the icy waters may make him reconsider whether it's a good place to be prospecting for oil.

Back to the south, the President should make a visit to Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest freshwater lake, and the incomparable Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Both lakes drain into Alaska's famed Bristol Bay, which the Obama administration has been in its attempts to protect, both from offshore drilling and from the proposed Pebble Mine, a highly controversial and potentially massive copper, gold, and molybdenum mine. The area around the lakes is home to crucial salmon habitat, as well as some of the finest sport-fishing anywhere in the world. The mine site sits just a dozen miles from Lake Iliamna, and locals from either side of the debate — those who oppose the mine as a threat to the salmon they rely on or those who support it as a positive economic force in the region — would be happy to tour the President around because, while he'll hear a lot about Pebble during his visit to Dillingham today, there's really no substitute for heading upriver and visiting the mine site itself. (The EPA action is currently wrapped up in litigation, but perhaps by the time Obama takes a post-Presidency Alaska trip, that will be resolved one way or another.)

Up-close bear viewing is bound to be less stressful when you've got secret service protection, and just a short hop from Lake Iliamna, Obama can visit Katmai National Park and Preserve, one of the top spots in Alaska to see grizzlies in their natural habitat. There are estimated to be 2,200 brown bears in the park, and one of the best places to see them is at Brooks Camp, where bears gather during the summer to feed on spawning salmon headed up the Brooks River. For an overnight, he should try Brooks Lodge — not exactly Camp David, but it is one of the only lodging options in the park and plush by Alaskan bush standards.

While curtailing climate change has been at the top of the President's agenda this week, he's also found time to address the geopolitical tensions surrounding the resource rush already underway in the thawing Arctic. Yesterday he called for augmenting our inadequate fleet of icebreaking ships, in part to keep up with Russia's increasingly aggressive position in the Arctic. As puzzles over national security in the Arctic and the dawning of a new, colder Cold War with Russia, it might be worth visiting Adak, an island way out on the Aleutian chain 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage that was home to a massive military base — a crucial piece of the Cold War security apparatus — from WWII until it closed in 1997. The facilities that once housed some 6,000 Navy and Coast Guard personnel and their families are now deserted, an eerily beautiful ghost city on the edge of the earth.

On the way back to civilization from Adak, the President could make a quick stop in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska, the largest settlement in the Aleutian chain and home to a billion dollar a year fishing industry centered on pollock, cod, and, of course, the famed king crab fishery. He could take the opportunity to head out with one of the Deadliest Catch crews, which would earn him way more Alaska cred than his outing yesterday with Bear Grylls. And more importantly, given his pronouncements during the trip regarding the need for additional deepwater ports to serve Arctic waters (Nome has been floated as the most likely location), it might be worth touring Dutch Harbor, itself the result of the WWII-era militarization of the Aleutians, and currently the only deepwater port serving western and northern Alaska.

The President's trip didn't include any stops in Southeast Alaska — that sliver of the state that juts south like a vestigial organ glommed onto British Columbia. Southeast often seems like a world apart from the rest of the state, even though it's home to the state capital, Juneau, but its islands and rainforests and rivers make it a spectacular, and justifiably popular, tourist destination. The Tongass National Forest is one of its gems, and it's hard to beat a visit to the Stikine River delta, a haven for migratory birds and a major salmon river that originates in Canada. This being Alaska, you're never far from a resource dispute, so the President might want to bring himself up to speed on an issue of growing environmental concern in the so-called transboundary region: the possibility that mining projects in Canada, near the headwaters of the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk rivers, could have devastating effects on Alaskans who live downriver and rely on the river ecosystems.

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